The mother of Parliaments

A picture of the Horseguards Parade and Whitehall Palace

I’m sorry to see The Economist make the lazy mistake of thinking that the phrase “mother of Parliaments” refers to the British Parliament.

THE view from atop the “mother of parliaments” is not as uplifting as it might be. Gutters collect smelly pigeon carcasses half-chewed by the peregrine falcons that nest there. 

There is no view from “atop” the mother of parliaments, because the phrase refers to England, not the Palace of Westminster. It was coined by John Bright, in a speech in 1865:

We may be proud that England is the ancient country of Parliaments. With scarcely any intervening period, Parliaments have met constantly for 600 years, and there was something of a Parliament before the Conquest. England is the mother of Parliaments.

Walter Bagehot, the famous editor of the Economist, wrote that John Bright would be the one contemporary statesman whose fame and accomplishments transcended the age.  How Bagehot would be turning in his grave if he knew that the magazine whose politics column is named after him had apparently forgotten all about Bright.

2 thoughts on “The mother of Parliaments”

  1. Absolutely right. Not many people know this, obviously.

    Another widespread fallacy is that ‘federalism’, with reference to the EU, means more centralised control, whereas in the EU (or any other) context it means the direct opposite — limited powers at the centre and maximum power in the second and lower tiers. Thus the opposition to Mr Juncker’s candidature for President of the Commission is driven by fear of his supposed centralism, not his federalism. This has the unfortunate spin-off consequence that it’s almost impossible to have a sensible discussion of federalism for the UK as the best solution to many of our current woes because federalism is not only completely misunderstood but also the new unmentionable f-word.

    Sorry, rather off topic.

  2. Concerning the topic of the post, The Economist use of the phrase was not a mistake, much less a case of being lazy. While Bright did not refer to Westminster in his quote, it is not obvious that he would have objected to that extension. More importantly, language evolves beyond the original meaning and intent of words and phrases. As early as 1911, ‘mother of Parliaments’ was used to refer to Westminster (Harry Graham’s book The Mother of Parliaments). The way in which Graham equates the two in his introduction probably indicates it was a common association by that time. How many decades (or centuries) must pass before journalist are allowed to use terms as they are popularly understood without being accused of lazy errors by pedants?

    Concerning the comment, it is actually you who have a inaccurate view of federalism. It does not mean (necessarily) the limited power of the center and the maximum power of the lower tiers. Federalism simply means that the different tiers stand (largely) independent of each other, without regard of how the power is divided. The U.S. was a federal system 200 years ago and is a federal system now, but the center has a much greater share of the power now than it had then. In practice, a move toward federalism from centralism would, as you mention, mean greater power for lower levels of government. A move from confederalism toward federalism, however, would mean less power for (at least) the second tier as the top tier gains independence from it. Thus if the European Council and the Council of the European Union ever ceased to represent the separate member governments and instead began to represent ‘Europe’, the EU would become a federal state. If at the same time, the reach of the EU increased in scope, penetrating more into the everyday life of its citizens, it would also have a more powerful center. Based on US history, those who prefer that power stay with the state have legitimate cause for concern about granting power to a body independent of the member states.

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